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A public outcry in China over the case of a woman arrested for stabbing a local official who assaulted her after she refused to provide sexual services reflects the widespread distrust of officials and sympathy for the underdog - even someone who may face murder charges.

Deng Yujiao, a 21-year-old waitress at the Xiongfeng Hotel in Badong county of Hubei province, apparently resisted when three officials demanded "special services." After some pushing and shoving, she lashed out with a knife, stabbing 44-year-old Deng Guida, who later died, as well as injuring Huang Dezhi, 41. The men worked for the business promotion office in the town of Yesanguan. (The Dengs are not related.) The woman apparently called police and turned herself in.

After the news broke, there was a strong public reaction. Within a week, more than 50,000 people had posted comments on Sina.com, a popular forum. While the authorities initially refused to comment, the public reaction caused the Badong police to issue news bulletins. The township government itself then took over and appointed a spokesman.

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The Deng Yujiao case has clearly caught the public imagination. A group of university students in Beijing staged a public demonstration, with one woman, wrapped in white cloth and wearing a mask, bearing a sign that read: "Anyone may become Deng Yujiao."

This reaction is reminiscent of a case in Shanghai last year when a young man, Yang Jia, dashed into a police station and stabbed six policemen to death. It turned out he had been previously abused by the police when they suspected that he was a bicycle thief. That case became a cause célèbre , with many people rooting for him even after he was convicted of murder. He was eventually executed.

The Deng Yujiao case sparked anger because it was seen as a case of a lone woman pitted against three rich and powerful men who were demanding sexual favours. One of them repeatedly slapped her on the head with a thick wad of cash.

There were also suspicions that the local government was initially trying to help the officials involved by depicting Ms. Deng, whom the public saw as the victim, as little more than a prostitute.

Right now, it is clear that many people in China do not have faith in the authorities, including the police and the court system. There is no rule of law as understood in the outside world. Until China develops such a system, a lot of people will continue to identify with individuals who dare to take on the authorities, cheering on those who have the courage to defy those in positions of power.

The widespread public support for Yang Jia did not help him escape capital punishment. It remains to be seen whether support for Ms. Deng will help her escape a charge of murder.

One positive sign is that the case has attracted attention in Beijing. On May 26, she was released on bail after having been held on suspicion of murder for more than two weeks. Yesterday, the official Xinhua news agency reported that both officials present when Deng Guida was stabbed have been fired. Mr. Huang, the wounded man, was also kicked out of the Communist Party because he had "pushed, shoved and verbally insulted a waitress who refused to accompany them to take a bath," Xinhua reported. His colleague was fired because the incident had caused a "bad social effect."

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Although a murder charge may appear unlikely, Ms. Deng is not out of the woods yet. But officials, aware of the public mood, will want to proceed with caution. After all, she is now a national hero.

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